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Sri Lanka to free jailed ex-army chief Fonseka

Reuters
May 17, 2012 at 02:24am IST

Colombo: A member of parliament in Sri Lanka said on Wednesday he believed President Mahinda Rajapaksa would soon order the release of the country's former army chief Sarath Fonseka, revered by many of his compatriots for helping end a 25-year civil war.

The jailing of General Fonseka has prompted criticism in Western countries, and if he were freed it would be seen as a sign that Colombo is addressing concerns over human rights abuses. The United States has repeatedly called for the release of the general, who challenged Rajapaksa in the 2010 presidential election.

"I met him (the president) this morning and we discussed some pending issues with regard to the release," Tiran Alles, an opposition legislator and a negotiator on behalf of Fonseka, told Reuters.

Sri Lanka to free jailed ex-army chief Fonseka

The United States has repeatedly called for the release of the general, who challenged Rajapaksa in the 2010 presidential election.

"I think it should happen soon, but there is no date fixed."

A government spokesman, Media Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene, said the cabinet had yet to be told of any decision to release the former army chief.

"The president hasn't informed the cabinet yet. We don't yet know whether he will inform the cabinet tonight," he said.

Fonseka, a former close ally of the president, is serving two prison terms - a 30-month term handed down by a military court for misappropriation and a further three year term handed down by a civilian court for making a false statement.

Last week, he asked to be transferred to a private hospital for treatment for respiratory problems.

Fonseka, 61, is considered a national hero by many Sri Lankans for his role in overseeing the final defeat of Tamil Tiger separatists in 2009. A suicide bomber nearly killed him in 2006, but he was back at his desk within three months launching what turned out to be the final campaign.

STOCKS UP

Sri Lanka's stock market rose more than two percent - in part on expectations that Fonseka could be released. Market players suggested the move could ease international pressure on the government to explain alleged human rights abuses in the war's final phase and boost foreign capital inflows.

But one political analyst said any release would be purely a tactical move to exploit divisions in the main opposition party, the United National Party.

"This is not due to international pressure," said Kusal Perera, a government critic and director of the Centre for Social Democracy.

"Rajapaksa wants to create a problem in the main opposition as there is a leadership crisis in the party. The president might also have the idea to go for a general election soon."

The government is under Western pressure to address war crimes allegations, and the nation's external affairs minister, GL Peiris, is currently on a four-day visit to Washington.

"If and when former Army commander Sarath Fonseka is released, it will not be due to any international or national pressure," Bandula Jayasekara, a presidential spokesman, told Reuters.

Fonseka was prosecuted by a civil court for an interview he gave to the Sunday Leader newspaper in which he said he had been told that Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa had ordered troops to kill surrendering Tiger military leaders.

The defence secretary, the president's younger brother and a former infantry officer who fought alongside Fonseka, dismiss the allegations. Fonseka later said he had been misquoted.

Fonseka and the Rajapaksas were seen as inseparable allies in the war that pitted government forces against the Tigers, who had been fighting for a separate state in the island's north.

But they quickly fell out after the victory in May 2009, with the general complaining he was being sidelined and the president increasingly concerned he would launch a coup.

Fonseka was arrested barely two weeks after the presidential election in early 2010 on a raft of charges, which the general said were politically motivated. He nonetheless won a parliamentary seat in April 2010 but the court-martial conviction cost him his seat, and he was stripped of his rank.

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